Monday, December 26, 2005

Edmund Wilson vs The Academy.

Pankaj Mishra
In 1955, Wilson would read The Last Puritan (1935) and remark on the resemblance between his friends at Princeton and Santayana’s hero, who struggles to reconcile his genteel idealism with the aggressively commercial culture of post–Civil War America. Wilson, who partly blamed this culture for the mental instability of his father, a distinguished lawyer, knew that Santayana in Europe was an exile from the new America, which he had left after an unsatisfactory academic career at Harvard, where he claimed President Eliot had turned education into preparation for “service in the world of business.”

But now the new America was, unexpectedly, the supreme power in the world; and meeting in a Europe ravaged by war, Wilson and Santayana inevitably discussed the changes within the United States. Sitting on a chaise longue in his bare, dark room, with a blanket over his legs, Santayana spoke of the “great role” in world affairs that America was called upon to play—a role he would regard with skepticism in his last book, Dominations and Powers (1952), the manuscript of which Wilson saw sitting on a table in Santayana’s room.

...Devoted to the life of the mind, Wilson couldn’t see it flourishing in the isolation of Axel’s Castle, the academic ivory tower, or the research laboratory. Instead he saw intellectual life as shaping and being shaped by the political and moral health of society at large. This belief and the related search for what Kazin called “a new spiritual order”—“a reaching not frantic or explicitly political, but based upon a deeply ingrown alienation from the culture and prizes of capitalism”—made Wilson more than a literary critic, although he wrote most often about literature.

...It was his engagement with the world beyond texts that gave Wilson’s criticism such clarity and narrative power—and this is what especially struck me when I first read his books in India in the late 1980s. For someone like myself, who knew little of the world apart from his own lowly position within it, and for whom books were primarily a mode of escape, Wilson’s insistence on relating literature to the urgent questions of life—how it has been lived, how it can or should be lived—came as a revelation and a surprise.
Gary Gutting (Philosophy, Notre Dame) has written a generous and informative review of my Future for Philosophy collection in which, towards the end, he considers the difference between "analytic" and "Continental" philosophy, which we had occasion to discuss a few weeks back (here and here) during the visit of the Stanley brothers.  Gutting writes:
I agree [with Leiter] that there is no fruitful analytic-Continental division in terms of substantive doctrines distinctively characteristic of the two sides. But it seems to me that we can still draw a significant distinction between analytic and Continental philosophy in terms of their conceptions of experience and reason as standards of evaluation. Typically, analytic philosophy reads experience in terms of common-sense intuitions (often along with their developments and transformations in science) and understands reason in terms of formal logic. Continental philosophy, by contrast, typically sees experience as penetrating beyond the veneer of common-sense and science, and regards reason as more a matter of intellectual imagination than deductive rigor. In these terms, Continental philosophy still exists as a significant challenge to the increasing hegemony of analytic thought and, as such, deserved a hearing in this volume.

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